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10 Common Hypnosis Myths
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Ten Common Myths About Hypnosis

Myth #1: Hypnotists have mysterious powers

Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), the founder of "mesmerism", believed that he and others were manipulating a force akin to magnetism when they put people into healing trances. However, since the early 19th century it has become increasingly clear that any "power" resides in the person who is hypnotized. The hypnotist uses techniques to influence another person into particular mental states, but the hypnotized person is the one who produces the state. How easily, and to what extent, someone can be hypnotized has been shown to be a stable trait across repeated trials, having little to do with who hypnotizes the person and how. This is why it's easy to learn to hypnotize yourself, and why you can be hypnotized using audio recordings.

Of course, because  hypnotists do use techniques to help people to reach the hypnotic state, some will be better at using those techniques than others, just as some people are better public speakers or better salespeople. 

Myth #2: The hypnotist controls the person who is hypnotized, who has no independent will

The idea of the hypnotist "controlling" the hypnotized person makes for a good story and a good show, which is why you will hear about it from stage hypnotists (particularly the less ethical ones) and ill-informed Hollywood scriptwriters. There is no foundation for it in fact, though. An unethical hypnotist might manipulate or fool someone into doing something that they didn't realize was inappropriate or against their deeply held beliefs, but a clearly presented and clearly understood instruction to do something obviously dangerous or wrong will have one of two outcomes: the hypnotized person will come fully alert, or will simply ignore the suggestion.

Myth #3: Hypnosis is a strange and unusual state

There's actually nothing very unusual about hypnosis and we go into similar states every day, we just don't realize it (or make use of them). Zoning out in front of TV, daydreaming, "highway hypnosis" on a long drive, the not-quite-awake, not-quite-asleep state that you pass through on the way into and out of sleep on a daily basis... all of these are very similar to hypnosis. People sometimes expect it to "feel different" in some undefined way and think that they haven't been hypnotized if they don't feel anything they haven't felt before, but it's not necessarily so.

Myth #4: You won't remember anything afterwards

Most people do remember what happened while they were hypnotized. A few people do forget spontaneously, and others will "forget" if instructed to do so, but even when they do, the memory can be recovered later. The memory isn't actually gone, it's just been put where the conscious mind doesn't have current access to it. The usual experience, though, is that you remember what went on.

Myth #5: Hypnosis can give you abilities you don't normally have

This isn't entirely a myth in one sense; the whole point of hypnosis is to enable you to do things you wouldn't otherwise be able to do. However, in every instance so far tested, these are things that you could actually do in your usual waking state, but perhaps not as effectively or as easily. Because hypnosis involves selective attention, parts of your mind which are normally used for paying attention in general can be used for paying very close attention to one thing in particular, and this can look like having unusual powers. For example, a very old trick (which can be done without hypnosis as well) is identifying one of a number of "identical" cards from their backs. Because they actually have tiny visible differences, people can tell them apart in a way that seems like extrasensory perception, but is just ordinary sensory perception operating at high levels of concentration.

Myth #6: Hypnosis is occult and a devout religious person should avoid it

This is normally argued in two ways: first, that hypnosis involves another person taking over your God-given free will, and second, that it involves occult powers.

If I haven't already disposed of this by what I've said above: there is no evidence at all that hypnosis is anything but a natural, inherent human ability, which everyone has and which doesn't involve any mysterious powers or occult forces. Nor does it take away free will or place your will under someone else's control. Most major religions have no issue with it providing it is used ethically, and the Roman Catholic Church, for one, has been saying so officially since 1847. (I realize that mentioning the Catholic Church's approval is a counter-recommendation for some people, but most of these same people are unlikely to change their minds about hypnosis whatever I say.) For more information, see Hypnosis and Faith, a website maintained by an Eastern Orthodox priest and hypnotherapist.

Sometimes the argument is made by association - shamans, witch-doctors and other such healers use trances, this argument goes, so the use of trance is inherently pagan. Leaving aside the fact that various brands of faith-healing and revivalism also use trances (and induce them very much the same way), this "argument by association" could be used against any form of healing or, in fact, human behavior ever known. Hypnotherapy is a natural technique with no inherent religious content.

Myth #7: There is no evidence that hypnosis works or that it is therapeutic

Some skeptics categorize hypnosis along with other "alternative" therapies, as unproven at best. However, brain scan studies make it clear that, for some people at least, genuine changes are occurring in the brain as a consequence of hypnosis. See How Hypnotherapy Works, on this site, for further references.

See also What Hypnotherapy is Good For for an extensive set of references to scientific studies published in reputable journals which show that hypnotherapy is effective for a number of conditions and for behaviour change. The website Hypnosis and Suggestion is an even more comprehensive resource.

Myth #8: You can get "stuck" in hypnosis

You can no more get "stuck" in hypnosis than you can get "stuck" awake or "stuck" asleep. It's a natural state which naturally gives way to other states after a while. For practical reasons, most hypnotherapists do explicitly end their clients' trances, but if they didn't the clients would naturally either return to full alertness or fall asleep.

Myth #9: Many people can't be hypnotized

Actually, since hypnosis is a natural state and an inherent human ability, anyone who can understand simple instructions and concentrate adequately can be hypnotized, provided that they trust the hypnotist and the hypnotist uses a technique that is appropriate for them.

The practical fact (which leads to the myth) is that not all hypnotists can hypnotize all subjects, and some people will be hypnotized much more readily than others, all else being equal. Also, as mentioned above, hypnotizability is a trait - some people are "highly hypnotizable" and can make more use of the state than others. This tends to be more important in laboratories than in therapy, as most therapeutic uses of hypnosis don't depend on hypnotic "depth". The main exception is pain control, which does require a somewhat deeper trance for the most useful results to be seen. This is an important reason why chemical anaesthetics, at least one of which will work for practically any patient, are used in preference to hypnosis for surgery - not because nobody can have painless drug-free surgery under hypnosis, but because not everybody can.

Myth #10: Weak-willed people are easier to hypnotize

This myth may have arisen in the days of the "authoritarian" hypnotist who worked mainly by ordering people around. People who were likely to resent being ordered around were less likely to experience success through this method. That's not how it's done these days, though, and the strength of your will really has nothing to do with how easy you are to hypnotize. Rather, if you are intelligent and imaginative and have a good ability to concentrate, these are the factors which will help with the hypnosis. Being open-minded (which is different from being weak-willed) is definitely a plus, too.

More Information

There is a classic, extensive and well-researched FAQ called Frequently Asked Questions regarding the scientific study of hypnosis archived at PsychWeb for anyone who wants to delve further into some of the questions above, particularly myths 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 9.